Raised gardening beds with basil, tomatoes and lettuces were added to the backyard at 2125 Stuart Ave.
Photography by Eastman Creative
Perfectly-manicured lawns are lovely, but they require a substantial amount of upkeep and are costly to maintain. Instead, some homeowners adopt a non-traditional landscaping philosophy and create low-maintenance outdoor spaces year round that can have a big impact on property value. “My favorite place to work is in The Fan and in the City of Richmond” says Tommy Thompson, a professional landscaper from Natural Art Landscaping. Thompson, who’s been working with plants and landscaping since he was a kid helping out in his father’s nursery, loves the unique architecture of old Richmond homes and tries to capture that essence in his landscaping.
“It’s the fun part about those properties because they aren’t very big. It allows you to do more and not spend any more money. If you put $5,000 in a suburban yard, you don’t see it. You put $5,000 in a small yard, you notice right away. It’s high impact,” Thompson explains. While some homeowners may view limited space challenging, others seize the opportunity and find creative ways to express their style and reflect their lifestyle.
“It’s not so much about what plants you’re putting in the backyard, it’s more about how creatively you use the small space that you have,” says April Straus, one of Thompson’s clients and Principal Broker of Bobby + April, a concierge real estate company in Richmond. “Our front porch is where we live.” Straus, who has lived in the Museum District for more than 25 years, takes full advantage of her home’s front porch that’s rises above the sidewalk below. More than just the entryway to her home, the front porch is her destination after work and a welcoming place for neighbors and friends.
Above all else, designing your ideal outdoor space is about creating an environment that suits your lifestyle, whether that’s socializing on the weekends, dining outside or harvesting an urban vegetable garden on Saturday morning.
THOMPSON’S LANDSCAPING TIPS
Let your home take the lead
Be mindful of the architectural style of your house before making landscaping decisions. The design of your home tells you what you can, or can’t, put in its outdoor space. For example, if your home has a contemporary layout, an English garden with a gravel walkway, thick ivy and fragrant lavender wouldn’t be a natural match. Also, take the time to examine your outdoor space and determine how you want to enjoy it. Take into consideration your children, friends, pets and all the things you want to do in your yard. Is there space for the kids to play? Where can I fit my barbecue? Are the dogs going to destroy my flowers?
Lawn free is the way to be
“I try to talk everyone out of getting a lawn. Grass is the most expensive plant you’ll ever put in your yard,” says Thompson. “It sits there, three inches tall, and is green. Until this time of year when it turns brown. What’s the point?” When working with clients, Thompson advises them to embrace a minimal maintenance approach when it comes to landscaping. The goal is to feel that you’re actually in the garden, and not seated on the garden. For some clients, this means a grass-free yard. Not only will this maximize your time and money, but it allows you to feel like you’re part of your surroundings. The best way to accomplish this is to greatly reduce the size of your lawn space and install raised planting beds complete with a mix of native Virginia flowers, plants, shrubs and trees. This approach is ideal for homeowners with busy schedules or who travel frequently and don’t want to spend hours landscaping when they get home.
Container gardens are a great way to plant upwards and help make any space look bigger, especially when dealing with urban landscapes. Thompson suggests getting creative when starting a container garden and to consider using galvanized steel stock tanks or trash cans for flowers, trees and vegetables. Not only is the galvanized material trendy, but the tubs and cans come in all different sizes and fit any spot. “If you really want to get fancy you can spray paint them any color you want, but I really like that galvanized look,” says Thompson.
"Take nontraditional items and turn them into unexpected containers for your garden," suggests Thompson.
Nothing is off limits when it comes to converting everyday objects into the perfect planter. For a recent project, Thompson took large corrugated plastic culvert pipes (the kind that are designed to go under driveways), cut them into varying heights and stacked them upright in a bundle. He suggests that after filling with soil, plant flowers, herbs or any other colorful foliage that will hang over the sides to create a beautiful cascading array of colors. The tubes are then transformed into not only a planter, but a creative piece of art. For a more modern industrial option, try using metal chimney flu pipes to get the same effect.
Be one with nature
If you were toying with the idea of installing an outdoor room, Thompson says not to waste your money. “It’s gotten cliché now – you see them all over. People put them in, use them for a year and then that’s it,” he says. Thompson says that right now homeowners are interested in “conservation landscaping complete with rain gardens, rain barrels and native plants.” This environmentally-friendly approach minimizes the amount of water and chemicals, like fertilizers and pesticides, which are used in your yard. And whenever possible, choose plants that are indigenous to this area while keeping in mind plant color, bloom, movement, texture and height in your landscape design.
“You’d be surprised when you get some trees and shrubs that are native, you can actually make them look like they are exotic,” says Thompson when talking about how to group plants together to create a distinct look and feel. He explains that you can create a relaxing Mediterranean look by using plants that thrive in Virginia’s climate like the hardy banana tree and the dwarf magnolia tree that, conveniently, doesn’t shed year round and produces large white blooms. Thompson also suggests incorporating shrubs like the northern bayberry to give your landscaping an added blue-green color, caryopteris with its silver-green leaf and purple flowers and variegated yucca for interesting texture and color. To complete the look try planting low-maintenance and native ornamental grasses like purple love grass or little bluestem. Both sway in the breeze with a light wind.
Obviously nothing tastes better than freshly picked fruits, herbs and vegetables that came straight from your yard, but it’s also a great way to meet new people. “Our front yard is done is edibles. We have strawberries, blueberries, peaches and all sorts of herbs,” says Straus, who has made her home in the Museum District for many years. “We have a bus stop in our front yard. People get off the bus and pick some strawberries and go on their way. We have a group of guys who come by every year who like to pull mint for their Kentucky Derby party. Our front yard gets a lot of traffic because people like to stop and take things out of it, which is fine with me.”
Community gardening has become increasingly popular in Richmond by not only allowing urbanites the chance to eat fresh fruits and vegetables grown pesticide free, but the opportunity to reduce their carbon footprint. “The best part is that you don’t need a lot of land to make it happen,” says Thompson. Planting greenery outside can help keep your home cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter by creating natural shade and insulation for your home.
Many local garden supply stores sell apple, peach and nectarine fruit trees that all flourish in central Virginia’s climate and help add a vertical element to your outdoor space. Dwarf varieties have been specifically developed to plant in containers for patios, decks and balconies and are perfect for small yards that won’t take up valuable space. They grow roughly 8-10 feet tall by 1 foot wide and are very manageable to maintain with minor pruning. The best part is that despite their small size, the trees produce full-sized fruit.
Art is everywhere
“Anything can be garden sculpture or art,” says Thompson. “It all depends on what you want it to be, you’d be surprised with what you can do.” This past spring, Thompson planted tulips in old work boots and playfully arranged them on the steps of Straus’ front porch. The flowering boots were a huge hit with her neighbors, and a creative and frugal way to repurpose an everyday item. “In my backyard right now there’s a box spring from a mattress that’s painted purple and has vines growing on them. It’s just beautiful,” says Straus.